U.S. astronauts are declaring their daring repair of the Hubble Space Telescope a success. The crew says the mission proves the importance of man's continued presence in space.
The astronauts aboard the shuttle Atlantis were all smiling Wednesday as they held their first news conference from space since equipping the Hubble telescope with a new camera and other enhancements this week.
They had a reason for smiling. They successfully made unprecedented repairs to a telescope the size of a school bus while orbiting 560 kilometers above Earth.
Astronaut John Grunsfeld says the complexity of the Hubble mission demonstrated the importance of having humans, not just machines, in space.
"We showed that you can push that technology even further," said John Grunsfeld. "That people can creatively solve problems in real time, as was more than aptly demonstrated by Mike Massimino pulling that handrail off, that was something that I don't think anybody anticipated."
Grunsfeld was referring to a challenge the astronauts faced on the fourth of their five spacewalks, when astronauts Mike Massimino and Michael Good spent hours struggling to remove a stuck bolt from a handrail on the telescope.
"I was out there, and just couldn't believe that we weren't able to, I wasn't, able to get that last bolt on the handle off," he said. "When we trained, it was actually the easiest. "
A support team on the ground at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland scrambled to figure out an alternative plan. It eventually advised Massimino to rip the handrail off with brute force.
Despite the challenges, the astronauts say they left the 19-year-old telescope stronger than ever. They expect it to continue working for another five to 10 years.
The Hubble is the first major optical telescope to float high above Earth's distorting atmosphere, rain clouds and light pollution. That unobstructed view has produced spectacular images of far-away galaxies and billowing towers of gas and dust rising from clusters of stars.
Data gathered by the Hubble has enabled astronomers to determine the universe is about 13.7-billion-years-old.
The U.S. space agency considers the Hubble's work the most significant advance in astronomy since the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei turned his telescope toward the stars 400 years ago.
Astronomer Sandra Faber agrees:
"To use a telescope as a time machine, looking back millions of years," said Sandra Faber. "That's a terrific legacy."
The Hubble repair trip is the last scheduled servicing mission of any science instrument in orbit, as NASA plans to retire its shuttle fleet next year.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the spacecraft program that NASA hopes will replace the shuttle.
Astronaut John Grunsfeld says if he gets to talk with Mr. Obama, he will recommend reaching even further in space.
"We have lots of places nearby, near Earth objects - the Moon, Mars," he said. "It's a great solar system, and it's time for humans to start moving out. And that's what we're doing. What we have to do is get down to the business of actually doing it. And I think that's what I would say to President Obama."
The astronauts will share their views with a key U.S. Senate committee considering NASA's budget. They will testify before the committee from space this week.